Why Teach the Arts: Views from the Field

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Shari Tishman & Barbara Palley – Why Teach the Arts: Views from the Field
Why Teach the Arts: Views from the Field*
Most readers of this article believe passionately in the importance of arts education for young
people. Most readers have probably also have firsthand experience of some of the challenges
involved in providing it. Though these challenges vary across specific communities, contexts,
and arts disciplines, in broad stroke they can be divided into two kinds: challenges of access, and
challenges of excellence. The first involves the challenge of making substantive arts-learning
experiences available to all children. The second involves insuring that young people’s arts
experiences are high quality—in their design, in their delivery, and in the purposes to which they
Reports from a pair of studies recently commissioned by the Wallace Foundation aims to
examine these twin challenges of arts education in depth. In Revitalizing Arts Education through
Community-Wide Coordination, The Rand Corporation looks at issues of access, focusing
specifically on the experience of six major cities in the United States (Bodilly, Augustine &
Zakaras 2008). In The Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education, Project
Zero at Harvard Graduate School of Education investigates issues of excellence, focusing
specifically on how excellence is envisioned and pursued in the field of arts education today.
(Seidel, Tishman, Hetland, Winner, & Palmer 2009). The authors of the current article worked
on the Project Zero study, and this article focuses on some of its findings.
Though excellence is sometimes measured in metrics, the Qualities of Quality project did
not involve program evaluations or measures of impact. Rather, it aimed to understand how
prominent arts educators and arts programs in diverse contexts and communities across the
United States define the characteristics of excellence in arts teaching and arts learning—the
“qualities of quality”—and how they envision and strive to create high quality arts education
experiences for children and youth. The study involved three strands of research: (1) Interviews
with leading arts practitioners, theorists and administrators; (2) site visits to exemplary arts
programs across a wide range of media and settings; and (3) a review of published literature.
Sources in each of these areas were selected through an extensive nomination process, in which
Shari Tishman is the Director of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Barbara Palley is the
Landau Fellow at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
This article draws on Shari Tishman's keynote address, “Qualities of Quality: Excellence in Arts Education and
How to Achieve it,” delivered at the conference, “Advancing Children through the Arts,” Bar-Ilan University, April
2008. A full report of the Qualities of Quality research study can be found in The Qualities of Quality:
Understanding Excellence in Arts Education (Seidel, Tishman,Winner, Hetland, & Palmer 2009), and all references
in the text, unless stated otherwise, refer to this publication. The authors gratefully acknowledge Steve Seidel, Ellen
Winner, Lois Hetland, Patricia Palmer, and the many other researchers who worked on the project, and thank
Crescendo Magazine, Interlochen Center for the Arts, for graciously granting permision to present ideas initially
discussed in an earlier article (Tishman & Palley, 2008).
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Shari Tishman & Barbara Palley – Why Teach the Arts: Views from the Field
several hundred arts educators and administrators across the country working in a wide variety of
contexts and art forms nominated candidates in each area. (See Appendix A for a chart of the
components of the study. See Appendix B for a list of interviewees and sites)
We began the investigation in a climate of deep concern among arts educators in the
United States about issues of access. Over the last half century, resources for in-school arts
education have been seriously diminished in recent years, not only through reduced funding for
arts in the schools, but also through seriously reduced in-school time. In response, innovative
arts educators have sought alternative ways of providing access to the arts for young people.
There are three interesting outcomes of this sustained focus on access that have changed the face
of arts education, each with its upside and downside: the growth of out-of-school arts programs,
the rise of the teaching artist, and the development of arts-integration approaches to integrating
the arts into other subjects in the school curriculum. In recent years, many community-based arts
programs have developed in response to the growing lack of arts education in schools. Not
merely a replacement for school-based arts education, many of these programs offer young
people innovative and unique arts experiences. Yet this positive development has also had a
downside: the proliferation of community arts programs provided an excuse for the schools to
not restore their programs. A second positive outgrowth of this era was the development of the
teaching artist. As resources for the arts in schools diminished, artists in communities across the
country rose to the occasion, working through community programs and in the schools to
provide youth with invaluable exposure to the rigors and authenticity of professional studio
practice. This practice not only helped to increase young people’s access to arts education, it also
countering the more academic manner in which the arts were often taught in the schools. Again,
this positive outgrowth had an unintended consequence: the growing presence of teaching artists
enabled schools to severely reduce their own staff of art teachers. The downside of this is that
although teaching artists can invigorate the schools with artistic practice, they often do not bring
the training and experience in pedagogy that the school arts teachers have. A third positive yet
complex consequence of the diminished resources for the arts in schools is the development of
arts-integration programs. At their best, these programs integrate authentic arts practices into
non-arts classrooms, creating rich interdisciplinary connections, increasing student engagement,
and deepening students’ understanding of art and other subjects. But it is easy to be slipshod:
interdisciplinary connections are often only surface deep, the learning goals for of the arts remain
instrumental and the arts become a vehicle for other subjects rather than a discipline in their own
These recent changes in arts education have provoked considerable advocacy and debate
over the last fifteen years. With access to severely reduced resources at stake, policy makers and
educators have advanced passionate arguments for and against each of these innovations.
Against this backdrop, one might expect arts educators’ ideas about excellence to cleave closely
to their positions in these debates. But, as we conducted our interviews and visited sites across
the country, we quickly discovered that this was not the case. Rather, people’s visions of quality
were deeply rooted in their ideas about the basic purposes of arts education in the first place—
ideas about the powerful formative influences the arts can exert on the development of young
people’s intellect and character. Interestingly, though people mentioned a wide range of ideas
about the purposes of arts education, there was a striking convergence around a handful of major
themes. Not everyone we spoke with emphasized all of these themes, but most people
emphasized several of them. In what follows, we describe some of what we heard.
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Shari Tishman & Barbara Palley – Why Teach the Arts: Views from the Field
1. The Arts Teach You how to Think
When arts educators talk about the value of arts education, the first thing they usually mention is
that the arts teach students how to think. They often use terms like “thinking skills,” “thinking
dispositions” and “habits of mind,” to make the basic point that the arts encourage the
development of powerful cognitive capacities that have wide relevance in many areas of life,
such as the capacity to think critically, the capacity to be creative, the capacity to be reflective, to
solve problems, to explore alternative points of view, and to make connections. Two capacities
were mentioned most frequently: creative thinking and connection making.
The Capacity to Think Creatively
Arts educators are quick to point out that creative thinking isn’t simply a matter of having lots of
“aha” moments. Rather, it involves prolonged periods of purposeful ideation, exploration, and
critical reflection— a process that typically takes time, skill, and a good deal of fortitude. The
arts develop students’ will to engage in this process successfully. Through high quality
experiences in the arts, students learn to push themselves to look for ideas beyond the obvious, to
be open to multiple possibilities, to invite critique, to re-envision, revise, re-compose. This
extended, often iterative, process of creativity is intrinsic to the arts. It is also an outcome of arts
education that tends to be widely valued by society (Pink 2005; Levy & Murnane 2004). Actor
and arts educator Eric Booth notes that, “Creativity [is seen] as a priority in the field, one thing
the rest of the world wants from the arts.”
The Capacity to Make Connections
The arts take the world and its contents as their subject, and the work of art making is to use
metaphor and imagination to envision and express relationships between diverse ideas, topics,
and experiences (Efland 2004; Perkins 1994). In this sense, making connections is at the heart of
arts learning. Like creativity, the educators we spoke with point out that connection making isn’t
always a matter of sudden insight; it is something both young and experienced artists often work
hard at. From exploring ways to capture mood through sound, to weaving together multiple
voices and images on film; from blending rhythm and language in a spoken word piece to
blending mixed media on a canvas, fruitful connection making involves purposefully exploring
combinations, trying out new juxtapositions, and creating new and provocative relationships.
Developing young people’s capacity to make connections involves helping them to reach
beyond their immediate contexts or frames of reference. Youth Radio Director Lissa Soep
emphasizes how important it is for arts educators to “maximize opportunities” for young people
to “link their own expressive vernaculars to larger histories that they feel included in, and [that]
perhaps have been exclusive in the past.” Scholar and arts educator Eliot Eisner believes that
helping students make such connections is a sign of high quality teaching in the arts. He explains
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Shari Tishman & Barbara Palley – Why Teach the Arts: Views from the Field
that art has to “function in [students’] lives, outside of the context of schooling, and [teachers
make this happen] by creating bridges between what they are studying in school and the life that
they’re going to be leading outside of school.”
2. The Arts Teach You How to See
Musicians talk about training the ear. Visual artists talk about training the eye. Whatever the art
form, many arts educators believe that high quality arts education develops students’ capacity to
perceive and discern the subtle aesthetic characteristics of things—in works of art, and in the
world at large. In our visits to sites across the country we saw many examples of this in action.
To offer just one, in Arizona, at Opening Minds through the Arts (OMA), we observed a
language arts class in which two professional opera singers were working with students to
explore the fine difference between “happy” and “elated” through the use of facial expression,
body language, and voice—a wonderful example of training the ear and eye simultaneously.
The idea that the arts teach you how to see is a traditional one, but it is robustly present in
contemporary literature in the field as well (e.g. Dobbs 1998; Eisner 2004; Greene 2000; Reimer
2003; Smith 2006). Embedded in both the traditional and contemporary views is the idea that
discerning perception— the capacity to see more clearly the features of things and in more
nuance and detail—naturally leads to discerning judgment. And, in fact this idea is reflected in
the double meaning in the title of the Project Zero study—The Qualities of Quality. A quality is a
characteristic or feature of something; it is also an assertion of excellence. This notion of double
discernment— seeing features, and seeing excellence—is present in the way many of the people
we spoke with characterized aesthetic awareness. They argue that developing students’ aesthetic
awareness helps students “see” the world more fully and in more detail, and thus enables them to
make more nuanced judgments about value.
Though the notion of aesthetic discernment is a traditional one, it is important to note that
most people we spoke with do not believe that such skills are only developed, or even best
developed, in canonical arts contexts. Art educators often stress the importance of broadening the
canon to include arts from many cultures, including folk arts and popular culture. For example,
educator and folk arts advocate Kristin Congdon warns against a monolithic conception of
aesthetic excellence that is dominated by one cultural perspective. Recalling her early efforts to
study folklore in an academic setting, she remembers that several universities:
thought it was lower, it wasn’t really aesthetic, and people were saying we have to bring
the students up to us and what we know. But it was important to me to start looking at the
aesthetics of different cultural groups ... and how people within these different
communities see what it is supposed to do and how it communicates their own values
instead of only trying to say these are great works that you need to understand in order to
become a cultured individual.
Relatedly, arts educators are quick to point out that aesthetic judgments of quality don’t occur
only in rarefied settings such as museums and concert halls. Such judgments are alive and at
work in the informal, digitized, commercialized environments in which we live. Designing a
Facebook page, making choices about what music to listen to, decoding the persuasive power of
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an advertisement or film; all these activities have an aesthetic dimension, and part of the job of
arts education is to help students develop the skills to uncover it. Arts education consultant Laura
Chapman argues that “it is a mistake to think that ‘high quality’ is only and inevitably at a
distance from everyday experiences.” Young people are exposed to others peoples’ judgments of
quality all the time in their everyday lives. For example, “If you walk by the cosmetic counter,
you have the opportunity to see someone’s ‘lessons’ about the aesthetics of self-presentation for
women.” Chapman wants arts education to help students decode the aesthetics of the
environments that surround them, understand their messages and cultural influence so that they
feel empowered to judge and shape them.
3. The Arts Teach Technique (in the service of meaning)
Along with the development of aesthetic discernment, another purpose of arts education that has
traditional roots is to help students develop artistic skills and techniques. Most people we
interviewed mention this purpose and acknowledge its legitimacy, but no one believes that
teaching technique should be an end in itself, or even a primary purpose. Rather, technique
should serve the larger purpose of meaning-making by enabling students to participate in an art
form: Students learn the fundamentals of drawing in order to paint, the fundamentals of
movement in order to dance, and so on. Often, learning these fundamentals requires sequential
instruction. Louise Music, learning coordinator for California’s Alameda County, and Ana
Cardona, arts education consultant to the Michigan Department of Education, were among
several people we spoke with that stress the importance of standards-based sequential arts
instruction in all four major arts disciplines. However, many arts educators express concern that
technique can limit as well as enable, including the educators who argue for sequential
instruction. Dance educator Sara Lee Gibb is wary that an overemphasis on teaching technique
limits how students explore the movement of their bodies, and believes that high quality dance
instruction involves knowing how to manage this: “The gifted teacher helps [students] expand
their range of possibilities without limiting what they’re doing.” Even among professional
dancers, she says, one can find examples of dynamic performers who are not necessarily expert
Even the definition of technique is itself in question. Shifting global, economic, and
cultural forces are contributing to a radical change in what counts as art, and who participates in
making and consuming it. With the rise of digital media and new forms of communication, and
the emergence of new art forms, many arts educators question the relationship between
traditional artistic techniques and contemporary forms of expression. While acknowledging and
often celebrating these changes, the majority of our interviewees reject the radical view that
traditional techniques are wholly irrelevant to contemporary forms of expression. For example,
Chicago-based artist and educator Cynthia Weiss believes that:
to say categorically that teach[ing] the formal and modernist elements and principles of
the arts is dead is to deny students the tools and techniques that will help them express
their views in the contemporary world. It is to throw out a whole set of approaches, tools
and frameworks that could be used for so many purposes, including critiquing society,
understanding the beauty of form and observing really closely our world.
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But arts educator and researcher Doug Boughton sounds a cautionary note. He worries that too
much attention to form and tradition can prevent students from paying attention to the content of
a painting or work. He emphatically foregrounds meaning-making over form, and argues that an
approach to arts education should “start with meaning and move to elements rather than starting
with elements and moving to the meaning.”
4. The Arts Teach you about Inquiry
Many arts educators we spoke with believe that a high quality arts education provides students
with tools to explore the world. From documenting their community through photography, to
honoring family narratives through dramatic monologue, the arts, when well taught, provide
students with opportunities to investigate human nature, history, culture, and the issues of our
times. Indeed, as theater educator Johnny Saldaña points out, the understandings that come from
these kinds of investigations are often the larger goal: He wants arts educators to help students
“acknowledge that it’s not always a performance, but it’s about exploring the issues at hand.”
Activities that involve using the arts to investigate community issues were particularly
evident in many of the sites we visited. For example, at City Lore in New York City, teaching
artists led students in an investigation of their neighborhood, researching the lives of immigrants
who are local shop and restaurant owners. The artists work with students to create a play that
incorporates folk dance with contemporary dance to tell the stories of the community and of the
students’ own immigrant experiences. Susan Sollins, executive producer of the television series
“Art 21,” argues that many artists working today are expanding our ideas about art precisely
because of their keen interest in arts practice as inquiry. The work of contemporary artists, she
explains, is a “model of accessing information, layering information, provoking new ideas by
drawing upon multiple sources.”
5. The Arts Help you Understand and Invent Yourself, and Understand Others
Many interviewees told us that a key purpose of arts education is to provide young people with
opportunities to develop self knowledge through self-expression. The term “self-expression” can
conjure up images of students mindlessly expressing unfiltered emotion. But the educators we
spoke with emphasize that self-expression in the arts involves far more than simple emotional
release—it can be demanding, exacting, and full of surprises. Anyone who has gone through the
process of drawing a series of self-portraits understands that self-expression requires honest
introspection, a critical spirit, and a willingness to form new ideas. Scholar and music educator
Bennett Reimer puts it this way: “You could say that in the arts you express yourself. Heck no.
You’re finding yourself out! What you’re creating is yourself. You can create in one way and
realize it’s not right and then do it differently.”
On the stage, in the studio, or in the practice room, self-expression in the arts often occurs
in the presence of others. In the best settings, a sense of interdependence and collegiality is
created as students and educators work collaboratively to create, perform, or simply to examine
each other’s work. One of the distinctive characteristics of high quality art programs is the
culture of respect and trust they create—a culture that sets the stage for students to experience
empathy and develop a heightened sense of our shared humanity. Museum educator Rika
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Burnham recalled a time that a colleague observed her talking with teenagers in the Metropolitan
Museum of Art:
He said to me that I should be conscious of what I was really doing, which was creating a
temporary community of people gathered together by the art. And he said that this is
something in our world that happens scarcely. If you think of how many places you
gather with people to talk about something … a big idea that is posited in the painting.
You bring them together to consider the most important aspects of ourselves and our
lives, our deaths, our spirituality, our sense of beauty, our sense of despair. Where else in
the world can that happen?
Over the course of the Qualities of Quality research, we had the pleasure of many fine
conversations with arts educators, from formal interviews with field-nominated experts, to
formal and informal conversations with numerous teachers, administrators, and community
members at the many sites we visited. When we asked people about their work, almost everyone
linked their quest for excellence to the purposes they were trying to achieve in their programs.
We discussed five of the purposes mentioned most frequently—but, of course, there are many
more. A distinction can be drawn between an arts program’s programmatic purposes and its
learning purposes, and, though both are equally important, this article has focused mainly on the
latter. Learning purposes have to do with the specific skills, dispositions, and understandings a
program aims to teach. Programmatic purposes are often linked to specific curricular and
community needs and concerns, and they are frequently related to the three recent innovations in
the field we mentioned earlier. For example, a purpose of many out-of-school arts programs is to
increase arts access to disadvantaged youth. A reason schools often adopt arts integration
programs is to keep art in the curriculum when art classes have been cut from school schedules.
Similarly, a reason schools often bring in teaching artists is to expose students to the arts when
there are no funds to hire full-time art teachers. Fulfilling these programmatic goals may provide
a necessary foundation for achieving other purposes, and each offer special opportunities for
doing so, but in and of themselves they aren’t goals that tell us what young people should learn
from high quality arts education.
Naturally, not everyone we spoke with mentioned all five of the learning purposes we’ve
described here. But most people mentioned several of them, and no one argued narrowly for just
one or two and against the others. Moreover, the changes in the field that have recently shaped
the face of arts education—the development of arts integration programs, the rise of teaching
artists, and the proliferation of out-of-school art centers—didn’t play a defining role in the way
people talked about purposes. Though people have preferences for certain approaches and
concerns about others, there was general recognition that excellence in arts education can be
achieved in many different ways across many different programs.
The Qualities of Quality study investigated the views of a wide range of arts educators,
including theorists, administrators, and practitioners working in many different art forms in a
variety of urban, suburban and rural settings, in school-based and out-of-school settings, and
with students ranging from kindergarten through 12th grade. Despite this breadth of scope, we
found that many arts educators working in the field today share core beliefs about the ways in
which high-quality arts programs contribute to the development of young people’s intellect and
character. Strong arts programs teach students to think by developing their capacity to think
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Shari Tishman & Barbara Palley – Why Teach the Arts: Views from the Field
creatively and to reach within and beyond themselves to make connections between diverse ideas
and experiences. Strong arts programs teach students to see by developing their capacity for
discerning perceptions of the world around them and discerning judgments of value. Strong arts
programs teach students artistic techniques that enable them to explore issues and ideas by
participating in an art form. Strong arts programs teach students about inquiry by providing them
with tools and techniques to investigate the world. Strong arts programs help students understand
themselves and others by providing opportunities for inventive self-expression and for
experiencing and exploring our shared humanity. These five purposes don’t come anywhere near
a comprehensive characterization of all that an excellent education in the arts can offer. But, in
response to the question Why teach the arts?, they begin to give an eloquent answer.
Research Components
Three Broad
1. How do arts educators in the United States—including
leading practitioners, theorists, and administrators—
conceive of and define high quality arts learning and
2. What markers of excellence do educators and administrators
look for in the actual activities of art learning and teaching
as they unfold in the classroom?
3. How does a program’s foundational decisions, as well as its
ongoing day-to-day decisions, impact the pursuit and
achievement of quality?
Scope of Research AGES: Grades K-12.
LOCATIONS: In school and out-of-school; urban, suburban, and
rural sites.
ART FORMS: Dance, theater, music, visual arts, and some
emerging forms, such as spoken word.
Three Research
Literature review.
Interviews with 16 recognized theorists and practitioners in the
Site visits to 12 notable programs yielding interviews with over 250
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Nominations solicited by email from several hundred arts education
Process for Each professionals in a wide range of roles across the United States.
Research Strand
Interviewees and Case Study Sites
Eric Booth
Doug Boughton
Rika Burnham
Ana Cardona
Laura Chapman
Kristin Congdon
Eliot Eisner
Sara Lee Gibb
Louise Music
Bennett Reimer
Jane Remer
Johnny Saldana
Lissa Soep
Susan Sollins
Bill Strickland
Cynthia Weiss
Case Study Sites
Appalachian Media Institute of Appalshop—Whitesburg, KY
Arts Corps—Seattle, WA
Center of Creative Arts (COCA)—St. Louis, MO
East Bay Center for Performing Arts—Richmond, CA
Marwen—Chicago, IL
New Trier High School Visual Arts Department—Winnetka, IL
Opening Minds through the Arts (OMA)—Tucson, AZ
Sound Learning—Atlanta, GA
Teens Rock the Mic of the Juno Collective – Minneapolis, MN
Will Power to Youth at Shakespeare Festival/LA—Los Angeles, CA
Urban Word—New York City
City Lore—New York City
Studio in a School—New York City
Lincoln Center Institute—New York City
MoMA Museum Studies—New York City
Find Yourself at the Met—New York City
Studio Museum of Harlem (by phone) —New York City
Big Thought—Dallas, TX
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Understanding Excellence in Arts Education. Cambridge, MA: Project Zero, Harvard Graduate
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